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The race to become chairman of Ofcom will be rerun after Facebook and Google lobbied to stop the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre getting the job, The Telegraph can reveal.
The culture secretary Oliver Dowden on Wednesday wrote to Peter Riddell the Public Appointments commissioner, saying he wants the process to start “afresh” with a new selection panel for the £142,500-a-year role - one of the most influential in the British media industry.
Mr Dowden is understood to have decided that the process has been deficient in some areas and civil servants have told him that there are grounds to rerun it. A major concern was “very heavy lobbying” against the candidature of Mr Dacre from major technology companies, including the Facebook operation headed by the former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Nick Clegg.
The decision to scrap the process and start again is likely to stoke speculation that the panel of four Whitehall and business figures appointed to assess candidates may have advised Mr Dowden that Mr Dacre was not appointable.
The panel was chaired by Susannah Storey, a senior civil servant in Mr Dowden’s department, and included the newspaper executive Paul Potts; the former BT chief executive Lord Livingston; and Melanie Richards, the deputy chairman of the accountant KPMG.
Ministers were concerned some candidates were being “marked down” for saying they would provide “strong challenge” to Ofcom’s executives and saw their job as reforming the regulator.
The process had favoured “those who would slot in comfortably within the current system and not rock the boat”, one insider said, when ministers want a strong independently-minded chairman.
Sources close to the process said that in an interview with the panel last month Mr Dacre questioned Ofcom’s ties to the BBC, such as via its then-board member Tim Suter. A former BBC News executive, he resigned from the regulator last week after he was criticised in Lord Dyson's report into the Martin Bashir scandal.
A source also added that Mr Dacre is said to have raised concerns about the BBC’s financial management, which were last week echoed by a Public Accounts Committee report which labelled the corporation “complacent” having “ducked the hard choices” as viewing and listening shifts online.
While a longstanding critic of the BBC, he has said it is a “ a great civilising force” and that he would pay the licence fee for Radio 4 alone. But it is Mr Dacre’s criticism of tech giants that prompted the most vociferous campaign against him.
One source said the tech companies’ concerns had been raised “several times” at meetings with officials. The Fleet Street veteran, 72, has been a longstanding opponent of the power of Silicon Valley and has called for Google and Facebook to be broken up. At Ofcom he aimed to use new powers under forthcoming “online harms” to hold them to account for carrying for child sexual abuse images, terrorist material and suicide content.
Data released under Freedom of Information shows that there were 20 meetings between DCMS civil servants and Facebook and Google in 2020 alone.
Matt Warman, the Digital minister, told MPs in April that DCMS officials had communicated with Nick Clegg, vice president of global affairs and communications at Facebook, ahead of meetings with Mr Dowden on Jan 12 and Feb 25 this year.
A further worry for ministers was that fewer than 10 candidates applied for the position, in part because of a feeling that ministers wanted to give the role to Mr Dacre. Normally dozens of people would be expected to apply.
A third reason to rerun the process was because of some conflicts of interest on the interviewing panel which were declared properly too late in the process. It will add further months of delay to a process of change at the top that began with the resignation of Dame Sharon White as Ofcom chief executive nearly two years ago.
Downing Street wanted her replacement to come from the commercial world, only to eventually appoint Dame Melanie Dawes, another senior civil servant. The Prime Minister aims to appoint a more radical chairman instead, and is reported to favour Mr Dacre.
The four candidates on the short list - Mr Dacre, former rail regulator Sir Tom Winsor, former culture minister Lord Vaizey and Maggie Carver, the deputy chairman of Ofcom - will all be able to reapply.
A Government source told The Telegraph: “We want a chairman who can provide proper scrutiny and challenge and were worried that public lobbying undermined the process, so we’re starting afresh.”
A Facebook spokesman said: "Neither Nick Clegg nor anybody else at Facebook has spoken to the culture secretary about the Ofcom Chair appointment. In a recent meeting with DCMS officials, held at their request, Nick simply asked questions about the timing and process and stressed that Facebook hopes to continue its positive working relationship with Ofcom. Any suggestion of a lobbying campaign for or against any individual is simply false."